The paths Jason Gesser and Mike Price have traveled since leading WSU to its last Rose Bowl Game were wrought with twists and turns, but the road has finally led them both back to Washington State, where the Cougars will honor them as athletic legends for all of posterity.
In 120 years of Washington State football, the Cougars have never had more success than they did in the late 90s and early 2000s, when quarterback Jason Gesser and head football coach Mike Price combined their considerable talents to usher in the Golden Era of Cougar football and become the most successful quarterback and coach tandem in school history
Gesser and Price won 24 games together and led the program to back-to-back 10-win seasons, a Sun Bowl win and a Rose Bowl appearance. Their pinnacle came in Pasadena, Calif. on Dec. 7, 2002, when the gritty Gesser played through a partial right meniscus tear and a severe high ankle sprain to lead the Cougars to a 48-27 win over No. 7 UCLA and a berth in the Rose Bowl Game.
Fourteen years later, Gesser, who currently works for the Cougars Athletic Department in a fundraising capacity, and the now-retired Price, find themselves back at Washington State together.
This Saturday, in a halftime ceremony at Martin Stadium the WSU vs. Idaho game, they will be welcomed onto the field as two of the seven newest members of WSU’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
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The paths Gesser and Price have traveled since leading WSU to its last Rose Bowl Game were wrought with twists and turns, but the road has finally led them both back to Washington State, where the Cougars will honor them as athletic legends for all of posterity.
You can take the kid out of Hawaii, but you can’t take Hawaii out of the kid. Gesser’s Hawaiian upbringing made him unique in Pullman and played a big part in steering him to play at WSU.
“Before I found out he was from Hawaii, I was like, ‘Who’s this white boy listening to all this reggae all the time?” said Devard Darling, WSU’s Bahaman-American receiver who went to the Baltimore Ravens in the third round of the 2004 NFL Draft. “But we clicked right away. We just had that island vibe going on.”
Those Hawaiian roots endeared Pullman to Gesser. There were days, during Gesser’s time at WSU, where even Price would walk out onto the practice field during the harsher months late in the year and jokingly ask his star quarterback, “Why did you ever leave Hawaii to come here?”
The answer was simple. On his recruiting trip to WSU, Gesser was sold on the familial atmosphere Price – who’s always been known as a player’s coach – had cultivated around the program.
“It overflowed into the university and town when I took my visit here. It’s similar to Hawaii culture: You take care of those who take care of you,” Gesser said. “All the things about the Polynesian culture I was raised in, it’s the same thing here. That’s why I felt so comfortable on my trip.”
That desire for family led Gesser to pick Washington State over an offer list that included Cal, Utah, Kentucky and Washington and molded him into the warm, team-first leader his teammates naturally rallied around.
“He’s probably one of the best leaders I’ve ever played with,” said former teammate Lamont Thompson, who spent a few years in Tennessee playing with Steve McNair. “He could just relate to everybody. He gets everybody and he gets the best out of the everybody.”
Gesser will also go down in Coug lore as one of the toughest quarterbacks to ever don the crimson and gray.
“When he got hurt, it didn’t matter,” Price said. “He had an unbelievable pain threshold. He was a tough, tough guy, and a quick, inspirational leader.”
But perhaps the quality that’s most overlooked in Gesser is the indomitable spirit that has powered him through tough times and helped him adapt to every situation. Life has challenged him to press that spirit into action on numerous occasions since Gesser left WSU in 2002 to pursue his dream of becoming an NFL quarterback.
“He really has had to go through a lot of transitions where he’s had to figure out what’s his next move,” said Kali Gesser, Jason’s wife of 13 years, and a former WSU volleyball player.
Those transitions often required some sort of sacrifice – from both husband and wife – and usually came at the cost of something Jason has always valued: family.
Jason and Kali met at WSU through a mutual friend right before Jason’s redshirt sophomore season and by the end of that year, they were dating.
Reality hit them hard a year later, right after Kali graduated, while Jason was starting his senior season. Kali’s original plan had been to pursue a professional volleyball career with a domestic league that was just staring up. But when she found out she was pregnant, the birth of their daughter, Jordyn, the following year completely changed the trajectory of their lives.
Jason went undrafted out of WSU in 2002, but signed with Tennessee as a rookie free agent after the 2003 draft.
Instead of playing professional volleyball while her husband played professional football, Kali was now a football wife and the mother of a young child, and it put tremendous stress on the couple’s relationship.
“It was really hard. It’s not how I ever saw my life shaking out,” she says. “There was a lot of resentment the four years after I had Jordyn because I was home working a full-time job with this kid and paying the bills. There was a lot of resentment then. He knew. I just didn’t like him at all.”
The Gessers quickly discovered that instability was the only constant in life as a pro athlete. Jason’s stint in Tennessee lasted a little over a year before he was released in the spring of 2004. The couple decided that one of them needed to have a stable income, so Kali moved to Seattle with Jordyn to start a job as a pharmaceutical sales representative while Jason signed with the CFL’s Calgary Stampede and the AFL’s Utah Blaze.
The idea was to play year-round because the CFL and AFL seasons did not overlap. But that arrangement took a toll on the Gessers because with Kali and Jordyn based in Seattle and Jason hopping between Calgary and Utah, they never saw one another.
“As an athlete, I’m not gonna tell my husband, ‘You can’t live this dream of yours,’” Kali said. “But he was gone most of the year, he had missed four of her birthdays and he wasn’t around. I could see this little girl clinging to men of any type that were around, and I thought, ‘this isn’t good.’”
Kali told Jason to pick one league to play in so he would at least be home in Seattle a few months of the year. Jason hedged his bets on the AFL and told Calgary he wasn’t coming back. But when the struggling AFL suspended operations in 2008, Jason knew his pro career was over.
By that point, the Gessers had two kids. Jason decided to go into coaching and he coached high school football in the Seattle metro area for a few years before a job opened up on Robb Akey’s staff at Idaho. Initially, well aware of the instability inherent in the coaching profession, the Gessers decided Kali and the kids would remain in Seattle while Jason felt out the situation in Moscow.
Two years into Jason’s Idaho stint, Kali and the kids finally moved to Pullman. So of course, midway through that football season, Akey and his staff were fired. Jason was named interim head coach but found himself unemployed when Idaho hired Paul Petrino in December 2012.
Undaunted, Jason caught on at Wyoming as the quarterbacks coach under Dave Christensen. He moved to Laramie, Wyo. to start work, and once again, Kali, then pregnant with their youngest son Cruz, stayed home with the children.
This time however, things were different.
“Once he reached his thirties, his mentality changed, and he kinda grew up a little bit,” Kali said.
Jason missed his family like crazy. So when Christensen’s staff was fired after the 2013 season, he returned to Pullman unsure of what his next move would be, but grateful to finally settle in with his wife and kids.
Price lured Jason to Pullman the first time, but it was Moos who got him to stay the second time around.
With Jason’s experience in athletics and star power among the Cougs’ fan base, Moos saw the former quarterback as an invaluable resource. So over lunch one afternoon, Moos approached Jason with a proposition: Stay home and help rebuild the Cougars’ athletic brand by fundraising for the athletic department.
Three years later, Jason is still here, and – he hopes – he’s home for good.
“My goal is to one day become an athletic director,” says Jason, adding that being the athletic director at WSU would be a “dream come true.”
“If I can sit here and stay here the entire time and keep the family here, that’d be a dream come true,” he said. “Sometimes you have to leave to come back, and I get that too. But I’m a true believer in things happening for a reason, and for whatever reason, I got guided down this path.”
Back to the town where Kali says she always knew they’d end up putting roots down. Because before Jason wanted to become the WSU Athletic Director, his greatest ambition was to be the head football coach at his alma mater, much like Price — the man he played for and has come to call his second father.
Of everything Mike Price accomplished during his career at WSU, the coach says his proudest moment came after the Apple Cup win in 1997 that got the Cougars to the first of the two Rose Bowls in his tenure.
The game was in Seattle that year, with Ryan Leaf at quarterback, and after the Cougs beat the Huskies 41-35, Price recalls his daughter – then a senior at WSU – running onto the sidelines to hug him after the game. Price’s brother also flew up from California and surprised him after the game. Then there was Joyce, who’s now been married to Price for 50 years.
She was there to embrace her husband when he emerged from the locker room, and it was a special moment for Price, who finally allowed himself to enjoy the biggest success of his career to that point.
There would be more wins, and another Rose Bowl. Then came Price’s awkward departure from Pullman, five years later. Between the end of the Cougs’ final regular season game against UCLA in December 2002 and the beginning of the Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1, 2003, Price was hired by Alabama as its new football coach.
Cougars fans were struck by grief when they heard the news. But the situation was compounded when they found out that Price planned to coach the Cougars in the Rose Bowl.
“If it wasn’t for my team, that wanted me to coach in the Rose Bowl, I wouldn’t have done it,” Price said in a phone interview this week. “I’d been calling the plays for 14 years, and it was going to be one of the biggest games of Jason Gesser’s career, in the Rose Bowl, and I’m not there to call plays for him? Come on.
“The president, the athletic director and the sportswriters did not want me to do it, but the team did. Probably one of the best things (out of that) was the team’s attitude toward me, it was really rewarding and I really appreciated it.”
Gesser echoes that, saying the team would not have played if Price had not been allowed to coach them in that final game.
The move didn’t endear Price to the fan base, and the coach left Pullman on a rough note. His Alabama stint was short-lived and Price’s reputation was tarnished when the Crimson Tide fired him less than six months into his contract after the coach was seen paying for private dances at a strip club in Florida.
Price eventually rebounded, accepting the head job at Texas-El Paso and coaching the Miners for nine seasons before retiring in 2012.
But given the way he left and the way the fans reacted to his departure, Price said he didn’t feel welcome back in Pullman or at Washington State for years afterward. It was hard, but he and Joyce rebooted their lives in El Paso, Texas and stayed far away from the town they had once called home.
“He was never invited back until I got the athletic director job,” says Moos, who was a freshman football player at WSU when Price began his career there as a graduate assistant coach. “I think there were some sour feelings of him leaving and still coaching the Cougs in the Rose Bowl.”
When Moos became athletic director in 2010, he brought the Prices back into the fold, and over the last six years, they’ve re-integrated themselves into the Cougars family.
Price remains the only WSU football coach to ever take the Cougars to five bowl games. He tutored three of the best quarterbacks to ever play at WSU – Gesser, Leaf and Drew Bledsoe, and led the team to three 10-win seasons.
He and Gesser “made Washington State a legitimate member of the Pac-10,” Moos said. “They energized the fan base, had a fabulous philosophy in recruiting and developed players really well.”
Time has healed many wounds. But if there’s one thing Price would do over in his career it’s this: “I probably wouldn’t have gone to Alabama,” Price said. “It ended up being a horrible decision, but that was my fault and nobody else’s.”
Also, “I probably wouldn’t have gone out that night,” Price says. “That was a bad night.”
Above all, the coach says he’s grateful for how his family supported him during the lowest times of his career.
“My wife has always stuck with me,” Price said. “My wife has been so good to me, it’s unbelievable.”
He’s also grateful that WSU has welcomed him home. In every way possible. Now, that journey is complete. Much to the delight of their former players and teammates, two Cougars football legends will enter the Hall of Fame together.
“Gesser and coach Price have worked for everything they’ve gotten,” said Thompson, who played with Gesser under Price. “For him and coach Price to be inducted at the same time I think that’s a very special moment.”
Added Darling: “He is Washington State to me. Him and Price.”